EFL Reporter @simgholam
The race for the Premier League: West Brom, Leeds, Fulham, Nottingham Forest, Brentford and Bristol City all in promotion mix
Wigan vs Preston, Nottingham Forest vs Leeds, Millwall vs West Brom live on Sky this weekend
Last Updated: 07/02/20 10:45pm
West Brom and Leeds both looked nailed on for promotion earlier in the season, but a dip in form for both has seen the race for the Premier League become tighter than ever.
With just 16 games to go of the Championship campaign there are a mere six points between West Brom in first and Bristol City in sixth, closer than it has been on this date in any of the past 10 seasons.
Here, we assess the runners and riders in their quest to reach the promised land...
West Brom over a dip?
A 3-2 win at Birmingham on December 14 saw West Brom move on to 49 points from 22 games, having been beaten just once all season - by Leeds - leaving them 12 points clear of third.
The resulting dip in form was almost unforeseeable at that stage, although much of it can be pinned to an injury suffered by Grady Diangana in that game. The West Ham loanee was absent for the following seven games they failed to win - aside from a two-minute cameo before suffering a recurrence of his injury against Stoke in mid-January.
Championship games live on Sky Sports this weekend
|Sat 8||Wigan vs Preston||12.30pm|
|Nottingham Forest vs Leeds||5.30pm|
|Sun 9||Millwall vs West Brom||1.30pm|
By the time they lost at Cardiff in their final game in January there were just two points between themselves in second and Nottingham Forest in third.
It forced Slaven Bilic's hand in the transfer market, and new loan signing Callum Robinson had an instant impact against Luton on Saturday as they returned to winning ways. However, a home game against the Hatters is as good as a free hit in the Championship this season, so it remains to be seen whether this result will trigger a genuine upturn.
Kamil Grosicki and Lee Peltier also arrived on Deadline Day to bolster Bilic's options, and Leeds' defeat at home to Wigan saw the Baggies return to the top of the Championship. At the moment things are looking up.
Leeds misfiring too
Strangely, Leeds suffered a similar dip to West Brom at almost exactly the same time. Marcelo Bielsa's side were 11 points clear of third ahead of their game against Cardiff on December 14. They were 3-0 up in that one at Elland Road and had kept four previous clean sheets in a row, but three late goals conceded in that one derailed them completely.
Their only win in their next six came in a crazy 5-4 win at Birmingham, while their next win at the end of January against Millwall was wrestled from two goals down. Leeds conceded 10 goals in their first 21 games - while they have let in 17 in their last nine.
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Confidence should have been high heading into their clash with lowly Wigan on Saturday. They dominated against the Latics but conceded an unlikely Pablo Hernandez own goal.
Bielsa's side have a habit of dropping points due to unlikely goals or unfortunate refereeing decisions. If they took more of their chances, though, it would be less of an issue. Eddie Nketiah could not break past Patrick Bamford in the first half of the season before returning to Arsenal. Jean-Kevin Augustin created a frenzy at Elland Road after signing on loan from RB Leipzig towards the end of the January window, but the striker has been left out of both squads so far.
Bielsa says he needs his new striker to acclimatise to the Championship first, but to not even put him in the squad against Wigan seemed a strange decision to say the least. They are dominating the Expected Goals (xG) charts, but aren't converting their opportunities.
They still occupy second place heading into the weekend, but that gap has slipped to three points over Fulham, four over Nottingham Forest and five over Brentford and Bristol City. Their next three games? Forest and Brentford away, before meeting Bristol City at home. It is set to be a pivotal week.
Fulham and Forest pushing hard
Fulham are perhaps in-form team in the Championship at the minute, having picked up 17 points from their last eight games. It is their most consistent spell of the season under Scott Parker, who seems to have finally worked out his best team.
He has settled with Marek Rodak in goal ahead of Marcus Bettinelli, while Kevin McDonald has been a regular again in defensive midfield in the last month. McDonald and Michael Hector - a January signing from Chelsea - have both been crucial in Fulham's last four games - including three clean sheets, three wins and just two goals conceded.
Aleksandar Mitrovic has also returned to their attack to provide some much-needed cutting edge. A wobble against Huddersfield on Saturday aside - that saw them nearly throw away an early three-goal lead - they now look an assured side in defence and attack.
Nottingham Forest are a point further back, but would have been better placed had they not suffered a surprise defeat at Birmingham on Saturday to end a seven-game unbeaten run.
They have appeared a little over-reliant on Lewis Grabban and Joe Lolley at times. Those two have provide 23 of their 41 Championship goals, but the January arrivals of Adama Diakhaby from Huddersfield and Nuno da Costa from Strasbourg will hopefully ease some of the attacking burden on those two.
Brentford and Bristol City close behind
Two sides yet to play in the Premier League are also in close proximity. Brentford are the second-top scorers in the league (49) trailing only West Brom (53), with their 'BMW' attack of Said Benrahma, Bryan Mbeumo and Ollie Watkins proving lethal so far. Crucially for a club who have become renowned for selling on talent for big money, they managed to hold onto all three throughout January.
Their biggest improvement this season, however, has been in defence. Brentford altered their transfer strategy somewhat in the summer by bringing in experienced centre-back Pontus Jansson from Leeds, and his presence has had a massive impact. They have conceded the fewest goals in the Championship this season, and have by far the lowest Expected Goals Against (xGA) in the division.
Bristol City, meanwhile, are level on points with Brentford despite a far inferior goal difference and having played a game more, but their defence has improved massively in recent weeks. Prior to a 3-1 defeat to Birmingham on Friday night, they had won four games in a row without conceding a goal, with Nathan Baker and Ashley Williams proving a formidable central-defensive partnership.
The arrival of Nahki Wells on a permanent January deal should help their return up front, too. He scored 13 goals in the first half of the season on loan at QPR before he was recalled by Burnley and moved on to Ashton Gate. He knows what it is like to win promotion, too, having been a part of the Huddersfield side to win the play-offs in 2017.
The chasing pack
Preston looked like potential top-two contenders at one stage, but inconsistency put an end to that. They have, however, picked up eight points from their last four games to move back to within three points of a play-off spot. Scott Sinclair arrived from Celtic in January and scored his first goal for the club in a draw with Swansea on Saturday, who are currently eighth in the table - a point behind North End.
Steve Cooper's side were another team who started the campaign superbly before drifting away a little. He played the loan market in January to boost his side's credentials. Two came in from Chelsea - 19-year-old centre-back Marc Guehi and midfielder Conor Gallagher, the latter of whom impressed at Charlton in the first half of the season - and promising striker Rhian Brewster from Liverpool.
Brewster, still just 19, won the Golden Boot at the U17 World Cup, under Cooper - and has hit the ground running so far with two goals in his first four senior league games. If Cooper can get the most out of him, Gallagher and the more experienced Andre Ayew, then the Swans have a real chance of sneaking a spot in the top six.
Slightly further back are Millwall, who have been fired up the table by Gary Rowett since his arrival in late October. They were 16th when he took over but now find themselves in ninth, and then Blackburn. Many thought their play-off hopes would have been ended by a long-term injury to talismanic midfielder Bradley Dack, but they are unbeaten in four and remain within touching distance.
Sheffield Wednesday were in the top six not too long ago, but now find themselves in 11th after a dreadful run of results since Boxing Day - picking up just four points from seven games. They brought in Conor Wickham and Josh Windass on loan on Deadline Day to bolster their attack but still have a potential points deduction looming. Cardiff are in 12th but have a squad who were in the Premier League last season and have the capability to go on a late run.
Who will go up?
Despite their recent struggles, Leeds are still the nailed-in favourites with Sky Bet to go up at 1/4, while West Brom are backed to join them at 4/9.
Brentford current sit below Fulham and Forest in the table, but are the third-favourites for promotion at 8/11, while Fulham are 13/8 and Forest are at 10/3.
The market would suggest that is the most likely top five, leaving open one more spot in the play-offs. Bristol City are currently sixth but are only seventh favourites for promotion (at 11/1), behind Preston (8/1).
Then comes Millwall (12/1), Sheffield Wednesday (12/1) and Swansea (14/1). The only other sides priced at less than 100/1 are Blackburn (22/1) and Cardiff (28/1).
There is always hope for all, however. After 30 games of last season Aston Villa were ninth in the table. By the end of May they were celebrating promotion at Wembley. It is the Championship and anything can happen...